Should WSJ China Reporters Be Spooked by Murdoch?

The staff of The Wall Street Journal won 2007’s Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their work on China’s economic development. Now, they’re concerned that if the family that owns the Journal accepts a bid by News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, they might not be able to cover China the way they want. I’m not sure their fears are well-founded.

They’ve sent a letter to members of the Bancroft family, who control the Journal‘s parent company, Dow Jones. (Greg Sargent at Talking Points Memo posted the text, and my Editor & Publisher friends re-posted. I’m putting it after the jump for my files.) Their argument is that Murdoch would prevent hard-nosed reporting about China’s problems that would hurt his business interests in China.

I hate to impugn the intensity of Pulitzer-winning reporting, but from my reading of the articles, there is little that would seem to disturb the Chinese government. Regarding their prize-winning reporting, they write, “many of those stories shed an unflattering light on the government and business interests.” But state media are constantly reporting on measures being undertaken to repair disastrous environmental situations and corruption. That solutions are being advertised (regardless of how effective they are) implies admission that the problems exist. From my experience researching Japan rhetoric in China, I have observed that controls appear to be tighter on Chinese-language outlets than on foreign-language ones. Foreign media publishing material on China are even less restricted. To be a perceived threat worthy of Murdoch’s restrictions, I’m guessing the Journal reporters would have to go much further than they did for this Pulitzer.

For the record, I’d like the Journal to remain independent. It’s one of a few remaining family-owned news operations with international reach based in the United States. The homogenization of voices in the U.S. media doesn’t need to lose a strong independent voice.

Here’s the full letter, as published on TPM.

May 10, 2007

We are correspondents who report from China for The Wall Street Journal, and we are writing to urge you to stand by the Bancroft family’s courageous and principled decision to reject News Corp.’s offer to acquire Dow Jones & Co.

There are only a handful of news organizations anywhere with the resources and the integrity to pursue the truth in matters of national and even global importance. Thanks to your family’s committed stewardship, the Journal is at the head of this dwindling group.

Our China team won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting this year for a series of stories detailing the consequences of China‘s unbridled pursuit of capitalism – for China and for the rest of the world. Many of those stories shed an unflattering light on the government and business interests.

The prize is a reflection of the Journal’s substantial investment in covering what is perhaps the biggest economic, business and political story of our time: how China‘s embrace of markets and its growing global role are reshaping the world we live in. It is an important example of the coverage that we fear would suffer if News Corp. takes control.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch has a well-documented history of making editorial decisions in order to advance his business interests in China and, indeed, of sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal or political aims.

Mr. Murdoch’s approach is completely at odds with that taken by your own family, whose unwavering support of ethical journalism has made the Journal the trusted news source it is. It is fair to ask how News Corp. would change the Journal’s coverage.

In 2001, for example, our colleague Ian Johnson shared the Pulitzer for international reporting for his articles about the Chinese government’s sometimes brutal suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Under Mr. Murdoch, these articles might never have seen the light of day. That year, Mr. Murdoch’s son, James, the CEO of British Sky Broadcasting, delivered a speech in California echoing the line of the Chinese government in terming Falun Gong a “dangerous” and “apocalyptic cult,” which “clearly does not have the success of China at heart.”

Newspaper accounts of the speech say that James Murdoch criticized the Western media for negative coverage of human-rights issues in China, concluding that “these destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government.”

We believe that it is important for all of us – from reporters and editors to you, the owners of the company – to keep constantly in mind the fact that the Journal is an institution that plays a critical role in civic life. We take pride in knowing that Journal readers trust us to uphold these principles, even in the face of risks.

Your family established and is now entrusted with a unique and important institution. Safeguarding it is a responsibility that you have fulfilled admirably for decades. Yours is the kind of stewardship journalists on the ground in China will require in the years to come if they are to accurately frame one of the world’s most critical news stories. We have enormous respect for your continued willingness to defend the journalistic standards so important to all of us.

Sincerely,

Gordon Fairclough
Mei F. Fong
James T. Areddy
Shai Oster
Jane Spencer
Andrew Batson
Jason S.L. Leow

2 thoughts on “Should WSJ China Reporters Be Spooked by Murdoch?

  1. China Law Blog

    I sure do not want to see the WSJ come under Murdoch. The WSJ is just about the only US newspaper that does a consistently good job on China and I do not want to see that put at risk.

    Reply
  2. Graham Webster Post author

    I definitely agree that good China coverage is a rare commodity. I just posted some more material on this, but it remains murky whether Murdoch exerts much control. And if he does, it’s very hard to determine why and who might be exerting pressure on him.

    Reply

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